Friday, June 08, 2007

I Been Writing for the Long Time Now

This is my 1500 post since I opened INOTBB in September of 2004.

So, I'm going to be mighty self-indulgent and put up an old essay (circa 1990?), back when I was still both trying to be a poet and a teacher. Now I blog and work in marketing.

We all get old.

Hope someone has the time and patience to get through this. There's sex and alcohol and rock and roll in it, at least.


Doctors keep at words, trying to frame the thrill of the body. Anton Chekhov, for example, found the mercy to tend to prisoners on Sakhalin, an island jail so forlorn it’s floated off Siberia, even. Yet Chekhov could also turn around to leave one of his characters, the hapless cabby Iona Potapov, with only a nag to share the sorrow of his son’s death, even on Christmas Eve. Such a paradox isn’t as much a mystery as a necessity--Chekhov had to match the heartbreaks outside with those within. There's no telling what gets the better of what with our seeing.

For our language doesn't come from our eyes. Even a word like “better,” can simply mean “the same,” as in a patient’s claim, “I feel better,” when she is back to normal. Better might just be ourselves.

That’s what William Carlos Williams, another doctor wielding words, learned. In “Asphodel” he begs his wife’s forgiveness for his infidelities, claiming he was at the mercy of beauty, silver-white flowers. But then even his poem is one more lover, one more grace. Williams is forgiven only if his wife had it in her, the kindness of blue skies one almost wishes a cloud would freckle. But almost is a word and a day.

These days I imagine myself a writer, which even as an act, let alone profession, is almost untrue. I planned to be a doctor, as perhaps every child does, maybe thinking, and then I can tend my parents past death. That’s both grandiose and dime store Freud enough to be true, since truth so often disappoints us, just as anticipation has so many syllables. I gave up my medical dreams because blood has only one syllable, and pours that fast. In high school biology, when we lanced our middle fingers to test our blood types, I felt my consciousness nearly seep out, I felt the tight tremors that meant my head didn’t feel in my head. It’s the closest I’ve come to passing out, ever. I still don’t know my blood type.

Surely this couldn’t be my only reason to abandon medicine as a career, for we all know our own blood is more cherished than others’--when another bleeds, a clinical grimness is as handy as a Band-aid. Still it wasn’t others I was worried about: I feared their ills could sap my own strength, their miseries weigh too heavily on my own slight sense of happiness. Like the main character in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, I worried talking with a lisper would leave me lisping, walking with a limper would leave me gimpy. A doctor could heal, I knew that, but I didn’t like the percentages.

I didn’t like my parents getting divorced, either, which coincided with my career turn--I wanted to become a lawyer. To be honest, I never noticed the possible causality before this writing, the chance I hoped to heal with legal sutures. The shift from medicine to law, then, was merely like a teen changing crushes--it wasn’t as much medicine failed as law seduced. I had written what I call my “eighth grade thesis”--graded by both English and History teachers--on Clarence Darrow, twenty-five mom-typed pages of paraphrased prattle, yet found a hero, and earned two A’s. Clearly the heavens signaled Darrow and I were meant for each other.

If my parents only knew my mind had been seized by a condemner of prisons, a liberal so pure of vision he saw through the gold cross glitter of the simple-minded populist William Jennings Bryan, if they knew my mind started to see all the traps in that banner of a word tradition. . .who knows, they might have hung together to save my meant-to-be-Republican soul. But I didn’t turn pinko to shame--or save--my parents, didn’t grasp politics was nothing to grasp, mere foul water, until years later. I just thought law would be a way to help the labor poor in Pullman, save the misguided if murderous souls of Leopold and Loeb, let science and John T. Scopes have their rational say. I was into law for more than my or my family’s redemption, and now, even having got beyond Darrow as Ubermensch and me as Ubermensch Jr., having got beyond law as a way to sane (I was young), I can’t ask my parents to confirm what I think I remember is true, that in ‘68 my dad was a George Wallace supporter. It’s more important to look for reasons to love.

Writing so long without that word is like watching the page hopelessly hold its breath. Love, well, I have struggled with it like a lover. It’s one occupation we’re all doomed to dabble in; even the religious take Christ as their bride or groom. Lover--it’s tough to wear the label without a deflating grin or some shenanigans to free us from all the word can mean. Like those
early moments before passion makes time meaningless, or at the least, mean less, and you adopt your worst Cesar Romero Latin lover accent, and leer so maniacally, your eyebrows flip over your eyes like griddle cakes. It’s not that you want to be a Lothario, it’s that you don’t want to be a fool, stripped down to your undies, probably after some mock bump and grind. It’s a danger to ever be that eager.

Not that I’m ever that eager to write. Writing really came from a desire for acceptance: I stopped wanting to be a lawyer because a famous person said nice things about me. But I get ahead of my story. Or my story gets ahead of me, but then it’s always ahead of me. I began to write, I’m not sure when, and then there’s that issue of what writing counts as writing. Does that fourth grade poem that began

Up at the crack of dawn,
To catch the six o’clock boat.
The dew is on the lawn,
grab for my coat,

count? Does any of it count? And count tends to mean money, let’s face it.

As for the writing I’ve done for bucks, I pass that off as hack work, since we all know about journalists, and doesn’t every writer somehow think writing is beyond the moneyed world, such a pure and noble thing, as we sit with the angels at our ears? Still, even James Wright wrote, “I croon my tears at fifty cents per line,” and if his writing doesn’t count, then literature is three card monte in which the dealer always palms the queen. It’s got to be more than sleight of hand, no?

It’s got to be more, yes. Open up the dictionary and you will find the word sleight/slight awaits in four different guises. It’s so easy to muck about for meanings. How quickly we’re willing to move from skill to a trick, unwilling to grant anybody else some due. That’s power, after all, and we might be a democracy simply because we hate to think anybody else has more than we do, which, of course, many bodies do, which, of course, is why our brand o’ democracy itself is a slight of hand, as it were, and now we’ve slid right along, past frail and slender to the pejorative. That’s probably one trait we all share, rich or poor, sleight or slight--we’re more than willing to think the worst of each other. To keep you from thinking the worst of me, let me explain.

Scalpel in hand, I’m mining my life, seeing with borrowed eyes. Life is a series of re-visions and re-memberings--we see again the parts we bring together, to life. I have no idea how I found Clarence Darrow, no idea when I figured my parents were coming apart. But I can write towards any moment, and if the moment’s not there, write the moment itself. That might be why I can’t give up longhand, even in this computer age--palming a pen, sleight of hand, the full, noble phrase, seems possible. I can suspend a disbelief in myself, but it’s an unwilling, willful suspension. And if you keep reading, that’s two of us who believe.

But here I risk turning every author Tinkerbell, coming to life at a reader’s clap. Here I risk turning my thoughts inside out to show there’s nothing up my sleeve, which can only disappoint everyone. That’s why I must return to the story--what will I be when I grow up? Like my friend who asks, “Who are you?” and not “How are you?” to say hello; there are questions we answer every day. And that test’s an essay exam.

So I went to college, not the one I wanted, but the right one after all. Still full of Darrow and dreams, I decided to be pre-law, but with a twist: To separate myself from the poli-sci pack, I opted to be a writing major. That’s where everything went wrong and right. Unlike Frost and his two roads diverging, I never realized I came to the Y. I just went down a different road before I knew it, lost and found.

Remember, no one writes just for him or herself. I never have: It’s always been about the act itself as much as anything. And I mean act in all its glory. As a college freshman I preferred writing outdoors, on the library steps, mid a quad where I could be seen at it. I would even run off there beery-eyed to lament the long blonde hair of some girl named Nina; if I couldn’t love her publicly, I could write about it and be seen, the un-mellow-drama of being seventeen, if writing drama and seventeen in the same sentence isn’t redundant.

Years after the Nina episode, Gerald Stern wrote a poem that ends, “For she was the muse. You never fuck the muse.” Maybe he knew Nina. Years before the Nina episode, Jack Kerouac wrote, “The prettiest girls in the world come from Des Moines, Iowa,” and sure enough, Nina was an Iowan, each long vowel the ache of her I couldn’t have. Sure enough, I was reading On the Road that freshman year, and when I got to that line, knew I could stop reading--the book was too true. There is such a thing. Maybe I sensed I would spend my time hoping to write such a true truth, one that could make a book half-finished and all complete.

Even if I sensed nothing, in real life I managed to talk to Nina once, in a moment so John Hughesian I’m ashamed of it. It’s lunch, not even dinner, and the cafeteria creates strange tablefellows. I’m petrified of women, still am, amazed I have ever talked to one of them, have ever got to the point where I’ve placed my lips on a collarbone’s curve, to the point where I’ve played connect the freckles with my tongue. So I stammer, and we talk about, what else, our majors. I say, “Writing Seminars.” She laughs.

I guess I have to thank Nina for being one reason I write, and no, it’s not just a revenge fantasy, a hope one day that a wire service photo of me and my Pulitzer sits across her lap as she lounges in bed one late Sunday morning, dopey with sleep half-shaken and the past half-remembered, her husband away on business. I’m not that full of delusion, really. But it’s a thought.

And any thoughts, well, that’s what this is about, antecedent ambiguous completely intentionally. What antecedent isn’t? When one friend wanted to call her poetry thesis This, I thought it genius. The powers that be talked her out of it.

But when the powers that be talked to me, I listened. The powers that be talked me into writing, full-time. You know how it is when you decide to do something because people say you can do it--you figure they must know, they’re older. Now a teacher myself, and mainly because another famous, older poet/teacher, at a reception after a reading, one of those moments when suddenly it’s just you and a star--kind of like the you and a woman panic, go ahead, just try to impress casually--this poet said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, of course you’ll have to teach,” so I do, and wonder what I’m doing to those younger, those students so hopeful I almost want to yell at them, some with some talent, others who couldn’t write a metaphor if I spotted them the “like the ________.” But, even those unfortunates, who find the world literal, sensible, even they might have something, and then I steer them away, at least hoping they can see I know almost as little as they do. That’s why teaching has to be seat of the pants--if you look surprised by what you say, people might realize they can think too, they can trip upon the rake of truth, which will, like slapstick, smack them silly. Planning things too much means you have to mean them.

So although I had been writing, whether it counted or not, for years, I became a writer because of a party, a reception after a reading. It was my first lesson that the writing world partially exists to throw parties, at which one tosses off mots one hopes are bons, while standing in close quarters in a smoky room drinking beer cruddy enough to be afforded by writers. It turns out real writers have this skill in their genes; one famous writer’s ten-year-old son, after sitting though a mock-pornographic reading that began, “Pooh took his thumb out of my asshole. . . ,” looked up from his coloring to opine, “The girl has wit.” At the party, the party where I became a writer, this not-even-a-teen requested the Velvet Underground.

My undergrad friends and I couldn’t get over we were at a bash with people who published books. We hung in a corner, drinking zealously, fighting pointing. My roommate and I, who were mirror-image friends--he Manhattan, me Jersey ‘burbs, he laidback, me grade-crazy, he jazz, me rock, he Yankees, me Mets, he going on forty, it seemed (he started smoking, and Luckies at that, to be like Sinatra), me emotionally barely the seventeen I was, had one love in common--Hunter S. Thompson. We watercolored “Bad Craziness” in red over the door leading out of our dorm room, and what’s more, our room was stocked with Wild Turkey, our hero’s drink of choice. We had a bottle of it with us at the party, and when a famous fiction writer grabbed it to pour a shot, I sensed something was right, that bourbon ran through writer’s veins. I felt at one with something bigger, In On It, at last.

None of us talked to the famous, of course.

The next day, my writing teacher, a graduate assistant who co-threw the party and penned the pornographic Pooh story (and who I had a quiet hots for, of course--that place where promised lands make like a Venn Diagram), pulled me aside, shaking me somewhat from my hung-over glaze. I had come in third place in a school-wide poetry contest a month earlier, and celebrated the award reading by losing my virginity that same weekend, which is one reason I keep writing about that great event beyond all proportion--I felt I wrote my way out of virginity, that the pen was as mighty as the penis. But what my teacher had to tell me was something more, something beyond, yes I’m writing this, sex.

“You know professor X was at the party?”


“He had me point you out. He said you were a very talented young writer.”

That’s all it was, that’s all it took, but I became that very talented writer. Whether I was talented or not didn’t matter, as it does so much, so little. Somebody said yes, a beautiful word, Chekhov’s snow that quiets a Moscow street, Williams’ thousand topics in the apple blossom. Oh to doctor things, to be handy with the right advice. To know true truths, even at a distance. Say the distance from the pen to the mind. The distance from me to you. What will we be when we grow up? And is up itself a lie? Rilke perhaps knew when he wrote, “And we, who always think of happiness rising, would feel the emotion that almost startles us when a happy thing falls.” Things fall into place, and I found myself someone I could be.

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Blogger Marty said...

George, you have a lovely ars

poetica here. In all seriousness, many, many beautiful phrases. It also brings back a flood of memories from my own freshman year, when I fell out of equations into words, fantasy into, finally, flesh.

11:15 AM  

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